We are currently re-designing the site. We welcome you input and your contributions! If you have any comments and suggestions related to the convert experience, please feel free to contact me. I am always happy to hear stories, comments and feedback.
After few failed attempts to connect with the Muslim community in my new city, I realized that it comes down to an inherent question of “muslimness.” “Muslimness,” defined as that which makes us look more or less Muslim, is constantly present in many converts’ minds, particularly right after conversion.
The first time I attended a Jumma’ah prayer in Ottawa, there was a shahadah being performed. The soon-to-be Muslim woman, sat there in her white jeans, short top and lose hijab (while some of the women gossiped about her clothing), waiting for the imam to call upon her. The imam, screaming from the main floor to the second (because God forbid a woman should walk among men), asked the woman to say the typical shahada words “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is its messenger.”
“The words resonated in my head as I recalled that those same words were the beginning of a bittersweet relationship with the mosque environment for me (and I am not the only one).”
Still that way, I managed to shake those thoughts out of my head, and I approached the new convert. Before performing the prayers, I had noticed that there were no “visible” converts in the mosque (some converts stick together and identify each other quite easily).
The Ottawa Muslim Association.
I reached out to the new convert with the hope of making a new friend and perhaps connecting with some Muslim women in the mosque. I introduced myself and, as I told her that I was a convert myself and expressed my desire to connect with new converts, I was pulled aside by an Arab lady in a black abaaya and hijab. “It will be better for her to learn Islam from someone who is in a position to teach it.” I stood perplex. Despite the rude intermission I decided to ask this woman about other converts, explaining that I was new to the city. The woman said “Converts are not really around. People in here don’t like them. They are all party girls.” I have never considered myself a party girl, even before Islam. I don’t really do late nights. But I realized that she was talking about something else… She was talking about “muslimness.” I found no words other than “O.k. then!” and moved on.
In my new mosque it did not matter that I actively sought to wear black abaayas and plain hijabs not to draw the attention of judgy women while in the mosque or that I was new to the city and had a big need to connect with other Muslim women… I just wasn’t as “Muslim” as the rest of them were. What is perhaps worse (I don’t know anymore), I did not LOOK Muslim enough!
If you have read my blog before you will know that I used to think that my little Albertan Muslim community was unwelcoming for women in general and converts… but I soon realized that Alberta fell short in comparison to the new mosque. “Muslimness” in here was quite important.
But I shouldn’t say it is the only place. After leaving Alberta, I noticed a few of my convert friends were struggling. I am not sure if it is a new tend, or if it has always been there, but these days a lot of born-Muslims are concerned about how Muslim converts are. A few days ago, a fellow convert married to a South Asian Muslim, expressed her discomfort at the fact that classmates question her children not only about their “weird” looks (the mother is Caucasian) but also about their “Muslimness” since their mother is a convert. Another close friend has giving up all together. The major problem for her was the hijab thing, people questioned her all the time about not wearing the hijab full-time and eventually became such an issue that some fellow Muslims (even coverts) decided to stop inviting her to social events for not complying with the standard. A fellow working convert, married to a Lebanese Muslim, has her “Muslimness” continuously questioned because she “allows” her daughter to professional perform Highlands dance.
I have always thought that these questions came from Muslims that had nothing better to do… But perhaps it is more complex than that… I don’t really know. The ironic part of all of this is that the day I joined the Jumma’ah prayer in that mosque, the imam talked about the rise of Islamophobia in the province and called us to stick together and not being afraid of showing that we are Muslims…
“After his speech, I could not help but feeling that despite Islamophobia being a very real thing, many mosques use it in their rhetoric to sweep under the rug other kinds of injustices and exclusions in our own communities.”
It is Eid Al-Adha everyone! I hope you enjoy this time in the company of friends and family. And please do not forget about fellow converts to Islam who may be brand new to your community or who may be looking to expand their horizons. Please keep each other in your du’as and strengthen your relationship with Allah.
After my last post describing my experience as a convert last Eid, I got a lot of feedback from fellow converts who agreed with my feelings on the holidays. Yet, it is not only Eid and Ramadan that have become lonely seasons.
We, as Muslim communities all over the world, take pride on being the fastest growing religion in the world. With 75% of Western converts being women, many Muslims adjudicate that to the “high status” (rarely people say “equal”) that Islam grants women. Nonetheless, there is little inquiry about how, when and why women convert. In addition, there is virtually no concern about what happens to women after they convert to Islam. We are subject of study elsewhere, but rarely in our own communities.
When I performed my Shahada I contacted the local mosque, and I was told that I just had to show up on a Friday night. That night, two friends were there for me as witnesses. After the prayer the imam announced in the microphone that “a sister was taking a Shahada because she found the right path… the path of Allah, and decided to leave her past life behind.” The imam never talked to me or asked me why I had decided to convert. He knew nothing about me, and decided to fill in the speech with connotations of the “right” vs. the “wrong” path.
Images often used to show that North American women find Islam appealing.- Via Muslim Academy.
After my Shahada, I was showered with greetings because my conversion “proved,” according to the imam and many people in the mosque, that Islam was better than any other religion. It also seemed to counter common claims that Muslims mistreat women. No one ever wondered why I converted and no one bothered to ask whether I even knew what a Shahada was. It was all about quantity vs. quality.
Call me crazy, but being used to the catechism protocol in my very Catholic land, I thought that mosques practiced some kind of “quality” control. Growing up in Mexico, aspiring converts to Catholicism attend catechism every Sunday until they have completed the entire program and are deemed ready to receive the sacraments. One cannot become a Catholic without preparation. Converting to a religion (or deciding to remain within) can be a life-changing decision. As a woman converting to Islam one should have their story straight when it comes to sensitive issues like clothing, marriage, leadership, pre-marital sex, abortion, work, education, etc. We must know where we stand on the issues, especially as the “when will you start wearing hijab?” question approaches.
We also love the stories about famous women converting to Islam, like Lauren Booth.- Via The Guardian.
A thoughtful and responsible decision requires knowledge and commitment.
Unlike other religious leaders who are very concerned with bringing along converts who have done research and know what Islam can be all about, the imam in my mosque did not show any interest or concern. He just gave his wife, who then passed along, a set of books on how to pray, a women’s code of conduct while in the mosque and a $50 gift certificate to purchase some hijabs at Sears.
I left the mosque feeling like a number… one more convert to sustain the 75% rate conversion in the Western world.
After talking to some convert friends, many of us are left to wonder if it is worth it? We are told that we converted for the sake of Allah so we should be happy just being Muslims. Nevertheless, the reality of things is that we leave our own communities seeking support (not lectures on etiquette or practice), friendship and a deeper connection with fellow believers. What do we get? Little concern from born-Muslims, no support from institutional leaders and lonely mosques to pray (only if the men do not claim our spaces).
After 4 years of conversion, I know several converts who are disengaged. They are bothered by the fact that we are treated as ignorant; they are upset because people are trying to marry them off instead of treating them as independent beings; and they feel left out in mosques that endorse Middle Eastern/South Asian experiences and forget about their converts.
Our, sometimes, lousy “Revert potlucks” seem to be the time when we all get together to feel sorry for ourselves. And as much as we have attempted change in our communities, we are often brushed away with a “sister, do it for the sake of Allah” and some propaganda on the “most popular” religion among women: An Islam that only few seem to experience.
Although I normally spend the holidays with my fellow convert friends, this year it was different. As Ramadan arrived, I was getting ready to travel to Mexico. It had been quite a while since I had not made it home for Christmas or any other occasion. It was long overdue, with my family members growing, multiplicating and getting older I felt a filial need to go back home.
Huatulco Beach. I spent some days in these area. 2013.
Few days before I traveled, I had the chance to start Ramadan on my normal routine: the fasting, the converts, the taraweeh prayers and the late, inexplicable nights, in my family’s eyes. I started fasting along with some of my fellow converts. The fasting was hard. Nineteen hours in Northern Canada. Knowing that I would travel to Mexico and that fasting would no longer be possible, I had trouble finding the strength to fast at all.
Since it was my last Ramadan in my current city, I decided to attend taraweeh and spend some time with other Muslimahs before heading south to my home-country. My only visit to the mosque happened with a close convert friend. We headed to a recently renovated mosque; but some things don’t change.
This is a picture taken at my local mosque in Edmonton. It was published by the Side Entrance.
As my friend and I approached, we noticed that the back alley was still the sister’s entrance and women were forbidden from entering from front or side doors. Upon entering the mosque, we removed our shoes and were directed upstairs where the regular one-side mirror had been replaced by a solid white wall, a tv screen to watch the imam and an imperfect sound system that made it difficult to hear what was happening.
The women were eating. There were very few women, perhaps only ten. They were breaking the fast with deep-fried food, milk and Coke placed over garbage bags that they had arranged to protect the already dirty carpet. Despite the efforts, the kids kept knocking plates and cups, so the carpet was wet and dirty.
Taraweeh was a mess. Praying in a crammed room, seeing how women with children were relegated to a completely different area so they wouldn’t disturb the single women, and experiencing the Canadian summer heat in an unventilated area with a little fan that didn’t work was not my ideal prayer experience.
Half way through the prayer I gave up. It was too hot, I couldn’t hear the imam or even watch what he was doing, and I didn’t feel welcomed. As the sisters took on a second round of prayers, my friend and I headed home. That was my last taraweeh in Northern Canada… a “memorable” experience I often think sarcastically.
After few days, I took off to Mexico. No fasting, no abaayas and hijabs… Ramadan did not exist in there. Although I attempted to contact small and, apparently, invisible Muslim communities in Mexico, I was reminded that the cross of the Catholic Church had more weight than the laws that protect religious pluralism. Invisibility is the rule of the non-Catholic back home.
Traditional huipiles at the Juchitan Market. This picture, that I took, was published at Muslimah Media Watch.
For me it was not Ramadan anymore. My family would neither accept nor understand the fasting, and I had to make a decision… To fast or not to fast?… Not to fast was the answer. As the Ramadan countdown approached, I noticed I was completely disconnected. I dreaded the mosque, I was away from my community and I was alone.
Once Eid came… I felt nothing. Few “Eid Mubaraks” filled my Facebook page, but nothing really meaningful. I was alone in my faith… praying not to have another empty Ramadan like this one.
The question remains… why did I feel so empty?
My limited Ramadan experience has left me feeling unwanted and unwelcome in sacred spaces. Also judged by the life I live, in which I still play among the Muslim congregation and the crosses of my family. And hurt, by the explanations I often have to give as a convert…
After much thought I think it is because I am still an outsider… a member of a non-existent Islam. I am an outsider within and an observer. Is that my rightful place as a convert?
In the past few years I have realized that the one-Ramadan-arrangement-fits-all actually fits none. The Ramadan experience is as individual as each one of us, and in order to be successful we need to identify what works and what does not. These are things that I have learned in the past four years:
1) Experience Ramadan. Sometimes it seems that our communities are much more concerned about whether we eat (or we don’t because we have our periods), drink or wear hijab during Ramadan. However, Ramadan is much more than that. It entails a lot of soul-searching and quality time with our communities, ourselves, and Allah.
Vancouver 2012. That’s where I spent last year’s Ramadan.
2) Seek Knowledge on the Scriptures. This gets me every time. Don’t read just to please people! I often show up to the mosque, see a bunch of women reading the Qur’an, but I realize that they are just doing it because imam-such-and- such recommends it. Ramadan is often a great opportunity to look beyond our own barriers. It is a chance to learn and research. Expand your horizons beyond imam-such- and-such…
3) Set goals. Being a convert, I see Ramadan as a new-year type of thing. It is a time for renewal. Thus, I like to take the time to think about my long-term goals for the upcoming year. It is also a great way to connect with other fellow Muslims. Past the month of Ramadan connections based on friendship and common goals last forever.
4) Seek time for yourself. A lot of us converts spend a lot of time visiting friends, mosque lectures or taking care of family. While there is nothing wrong with that, Ramadan calls for quality time with Allah. It invites us to reflect on our actions, our beliefs and our plans. Now, although prayer is often described as the time to reflect, some of us get more inspired while performing activities that we enjoy. My one-one-one time with Allah (aside from prayers) happens while I bake… Yes! That’s where I feel the freest and the most creative.
Home-made Marble Shortbread
5) Share. When I talk about sharing I do not mean going to every iftar you are invited to or going to the mosque because you feel obligated. Rather, we should be strengthening the ties with those that make us whole. In my case, I spend a large part of Ramadan with my non-Muslim family, with my fellow converts and with Muslims and non-Muslims that elevate me to a whole new spiritual level.
6) Be good, Be inclusive. We all have bad habits and bad behaviours and we can’t probably get rid of them in one day. We like to exclude others and criticize them; we call certain things a “sin” because we don’t agree with them. We think less of others based on race, gender, sexuality and religion… well, Ramadan is the perfect opportunity to expand our horizons and live our life while letting other live theirs. Be nice and good to others… it goes a long way.
7) Give. Not everyone has the money, but we all have something that we could give out or share. Giving our time and sharing our goods is not only rewarding but it actually helps others. Some of the most innovative things I have seen in the last few years include women in my community organizing clothing drives for women’s shelters, assisting single mothers looking for jobs, babysitting for low-income women, volunteering in seniors residences and hospitals and providing skills support for immigrant men and women. You can also come up with some ideas to include children in the giving process.
8) Fast. Now, I know you know about the food, drink and sex issue. However, the way I see it is that fasting entails more than restrain for certain things. Ramadan teaches us that we have self-control, that we can seek discipline and achieve goals. Therefore, fasting for me includes acquiring new skills and problem solving. For instance, I have always been very bad at managing my budget. So this year, part of my fasting entails acquiring the skills, the discipline and the self-control to successfully save money towards long-term goals.
9) Be flexible. One of my problems attending the mosque during Ramadan is that I feel as a weird specimen. Some non-convert women in my community watch me (and other converts) all the time and check on me… From how I pray to the color of my socks, having people looking over my shoulder makes me feel unwelcome and angry at times. However, it has taught me that there are greater things in life and that we must be flexible. Ramadan is about striving for better spiritual connections, loving relationships and self-awareness, and there are several ways to achieve that. So, let’s be less concerned about what others are doing “wrong” and let’s focus on being flexible, loving and welcoming.
Breaking the fast in the beach was a great experience.
10) Enjoy it! Sometimes there is a lot of pressure. Pressure to follow particular rules, rituals and customs, and this can be intimidating and challenging for a lot of new Muslims. Yet, it is very important to enjoy Ramadan. Try to relax, work at your own pace and seek support in those that can provide it. At the end, Ramadan is about learning and seeking spirituality and only comes once a year. It is time to celebrate!
Reflections on Identity and Conversion
I have a friend who is probably one of the few converts who has figured out how to reconcile, merge and display multiple identities at once. This extrovert lady, who stills the spot at every party, is not only highly educated but also knows multiple languages and pays tribute to her European ancestry. She has been a Muslim for many years, but she has also managed to pass down to her children elements of her non-Muslim identity that are important to her.
Zahra Lari- Via Hijabican
Although her kids have Muslim names, you can find them wearing kilts and performing Highland dancing. Yes, she wears hijab but her daughter does not since it is not the mother’s decision to make. My friend has not given up what makes her whole for the solely purpose of pleasing her Muslim community or her born-Muslim husband. This lady is often found volunteering in traditionally all-male environments and fulfilling her motherly duties by encouraging her kids to do what they enjoy doing.
Yet, it is exactly this behaviour that has raised some questions in our Muslim community… is this appropriate for a convert? Can she really call herself a Muslim? Should she force her daughter to wear hijab and her son to give up the kilts? And what about her activities with men!
Many Muslim communities in today’s Western countries are very unilateral in that they preach that there is only one way to be a Muslim. Much of it is expressed in the way you dress, what you eat and how much you follow what particular mosques consider to be sunnah. This makes it quite challenging for new female converts to reconcile multiple identities.
As a convert I often feel that I live a triple life. First, as a Latin-American immigrant in a Western country; second, as a woman born into a macho culture; and, finally, as a convert to Islam. The intersection of these identities has proven challenging for me to manage. Latin Americans do not understand that I do not drink or eat pork; Westerners do not know whether to stereotype me as an “illegal immigrant,” “a drug dealer,” “an oppressed Muslim woman” or a “terrorist;” and Muslims do not know what to make of a Latin American convert who identifies as a feminist and takes pride in her cultural heritage.
Muslim girls singing- Via the Washington Post
Being one of the fastest growing religions in the world, a convert would expect other Muslims to be open to diversity. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.
For instance, one of the things that shocked me when I first became a Muslim was my community’s attitude towards death. During salat al-janazah women are severely warned against crying, screaming or expressing any kind of pain, and some even question women’s presence in these circumstances. Children are taught to somehow “forget” about the dead, and people in my community compare other religions’ relationship with death as a sort of idol worshiping… The fact that they are oblivious to other’s views on death is not surprising, as my community tends to be quite one-sided when it comes to worship. However, many of them do not even imagine that they may be shattering one of their own cultural identity.
As a Mexican I grew up seeing images of death everywhere, not only in the Day of the Dead, but also through ritual practices. Even though my family was not religious we visited the graves of family members on special occasions, we cleaned the tombs and replaced the flowers. My grandmother kept an altar with the pictures of our dead (an uncle and later my grandfather). The idea is not to worship; but rather to remember. Remembrance of the dead is important to us for several reasons. If one asked my grandmother about the altar, she would say that the altar is a line of communication with God through which she prays for an easy transition to the afterlife for those who preceded us. She would also emphasize the importance of younger generations remembering the death and being aware of their own mortality.
Culturally death is close to us, perhaps because hardship became common through war, colonization and poverty; or maybe because death is real and expected.
Engaging with a Muslim community that is very Arab-like and so ambivalent to death was not easy, and I noticed that a lot of the converts are compelled to give in to particular cultural expectations. But, is that what makes a Muslim? Are we supposed to adopt the dominant cultural representations in our individual communities?
To be realistic, we do. We adopt certain things (i.e. specific forms of hijab, eating habits, language, etc.) Some others “slip” our minds… Thanks Giving turkey anyone?
Yet, the core should remain… we must ask what makes ME a Muslim?
In my time as a Muslim, I have been lectured several times about the death issue (and many other ideological occurrences) but I have not left it aside since it makes me who I am. After few years of practicing and interacting with a variety of Muslims, I have come to understand that our communities should often be reminded that things are not black and white even for Muslims.
Muslim woman in Christmas attire- Via Muslimah Media Watch
Diversity is good and enriches communities. And although right now my community is not very open to alternative identities, I see in people like my friend and her kids some hope for the future. Perhaps the younger generations will realize that Islam is not a squared box of cement. It is rather a space open to everyone and it opens its doors to every individual.